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Neighborhood Art Traffic Signals: Johanna Poethig's "Freeway Prophecy" Mural

"Freeway Prophecy" gently subverts automobillious hegemony with poetic young teenagers' visions, gathered in an autonomous urban alley now liberated via art.

Mike Mosher

Issue #40, October 1998


On the postcard announcing its dedication June 29, 1998, Johanna Poethig's mural "Freeway Prophecy" at Eighth and Clementina Street in San Francisco is subtitled "a surrealistic look at the future of transportation." Though she shares "lead artist" credit with Sofie Siegmann, I attribute much of the mural's direction to the painter Poethig, a veteran San Francisco community muralist of the medium's second generation. Johanna Poethig is one of the city's most visible muralists, with prominent outdoor projects since the early 1980s in South of Market, Duboce Park, Tenderloin and other neighborhoods. One mural on the fall of Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship is seen by thousands of rush-hour commuters from highway 280. In any case, "Freeway Prophecy" was a major coordinated production crediting, besides Siegmann, nine other Artist Collaborators, seventeen Youth Artists and the Writers Corps poet Donna Ho.

It is not only the content and subject matter of this project that raise issues of traffic control. In coordinating various funders and supporters, Program Manager Nila Rogosin of the San Francisco nonprofit ArtSpan directed the traffic of incoming grants and the artists. The "Freeway Prophecy" mural was funded by the Neighborhood Beautification Fund, the San Francisco Art Commission, the California Arts Council, the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, Mervyn's California, Dunn Edwards Paints and the Wicker Works (a business located in the building on which the "Prophecy" appears). The style of "Freeway Prophecy" is similar to the artwork on the walls of the South of Market Health Center at the corner of Minna and Russ, a mural project Poethig directed in 1996. In that earlier work Sophie Siegmann and Ericka Clark Shaw were credited a "Artist Instructors" for leading the youth ceramics workshops that created the project's life-size silhouette figures affixed to the walls, and Hoa Nguyen was the Writers Corps poet contributing text incorporated into the mural.

While the figures on the South of Market Health Center float in an undifferentiated field of color, in "Freeway Prophecy" both ceramic kidwork and massive hands painted by Johanna Poethig appear on backgrounds that range in color from flat, cool blue and lawnlike green to furnace orange. The limitations of the mural's two-story wall, punctured with thirteen windows and a door, are addressed with a variety of imagery. A road — perhaps San Francisco's Central Freeway, a half a mile away — is depicted as the back of a long, stretched-out serpent-like lizard. Instead of cars its asphalt is peppered with hovering feet, wheeled fish, a violin on wheels, fantastic little animals and more, all ceramic elements produced offsite by the youth workshops. As a further incentive to contribute to "Freeway Prophecy," youths between the ages of eleven and eighteen were paid a stipend of $6.00 for each ceramics workshop session they attended.

The building's two rhythmic stories of windows are punctuated on the first floor with three vertical signs of differing heights including "Parking Anytime," showing a foot, Donna Ho's poem, and a sequence of five ten foot-tall vertical hands. In counterpoint, above the five hands the building is horizontally bisected by the yellow dividing line dashes in the roadway reptile. Above that, the ceramic feet and little travellers spread out like musical notes on an invisible stave. In the blue sky above the roadway (and above that, silvery white Frisco fog), and in the moody purple and firey orange on the story below it, other formal visual relationships are established. A big round bicycle wheel at the mural's lower right echoes the tall octagonal stop sign on the left side and the round radiant sunlike face on the second story above it, and to a lesser degree the two rounded billowing trees. In one sense the composition reflects the scattershot complexity of urban street travel and traffic, yet both big hands and small ceramics are ideally distanced, orderly in their arrangement, but not symmetrical. The mood established is both friendly, as a result of the kid-produced art elements, and urgently communicative, from the big signalling hands. Nowhere is it hurried and bunched up like San Francisco's usual freeway traffic.

In some ways the artist's solutions to the mural's visual problems can be contextualized in her own era. The first generation of contemporary community muralists in San Francisco, now in their fifties, first came to prominence in the early 1970s. They used many design techniques originated by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siquieros to suggest dynamism. Extreme foreshortening and perspective have been used to convey the movement of organized marchers, fists and future-pointing fingers in Ray Patlan's murals at New College of California and at San Francisco State University, and of Duke Ellington's piano keys in Dewey Crumpler's work on the African-American Cultural Center on Fulton Street. Their accelerated imagery jumps right out at you, or thrusts along in the direction of the painted narrative. Poethig's (and my own) generation is the second generation of San Francisco muralists. This generation can be distinguished from the first by a greater eclecticism and departure from Mexican models. Many of the muralists about a decade younger than San Francisco's first crop came out of art schools rather than the neighborhoods and witnessed the successful results of active neighborhood mural organizing and painting. Some new strategies, tactics, and visual techniques of this group were the result of changing funding conditions following the passage of Proposition 13, California's 1978 law reducing the property taxes that had funded many cultural development projects. Ronald Reagan's presidency saw the short-lived CETA muralists' jobs and other arts jobs disappearing alongside many of the unified neighborhood coalitions that engendered unified murals.

A third generation of community mural painters in San Francisco have come into their own in the 1990s. Now in their thirties, they are even more eclectic than the previous two generations, and are distinguished by the inspiration they draw from various comic book styles — as in the Clarion Alley Muralists' Redstone Building labor murals — and from their contemporaries who go out tagging nocturnally with with spraycans.

When compared to many of the older artists' Siquerios-inspired compositions, Johanna Poethig's "Freeway Prophecy" is surprisingly static, containing a ring of movement of the ceramic youth contributions on the second story that's as peaceful as a parade route or a children's pony ride at the zoo. It's almost as if the tall parental hands at the bottom can ignore the children for a moment to spell out the poem. Upon the architectural difficulties posed by the building's Clementina side wall the imagery remains compartmentalized, like assemblage artist Joseph Cornell's boxes. Big, still hands and words slow down the Toonerville Trolley pace of the fantasy traffic toodling along the two-lane blacktop ribbon of the lizard's back.

Johanna Poethig has used the motif of hands before. In a 1992 mural "To Cause to Remember" the Statue of Liberty's upraised arm now appears horizontal, as the famous figure is on her back upon a homeless shelter's wall. Most prominently arms are extended in the multistory "Street of Eternity/Calle de Eternidad", her 1993 mural at 351 South Broadway in Los Angeles that was funded by SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center). There they rise out of a poem by Octavio Paz, an Aztec calendar, and rich Incan goldwork. On that site the long upward-reaching forearms and hands link the aspirations of the neighborhood's Latino immigrants with the tall skyscrapers only a few blocks away. In that work the skyward-reaching arms remind me of the enlongated, slightly Cubist artwork in many Roman Catholic missals and decorating churches in the 1960s. But similar abstractions were also used in the 1940s Rincon Annex Post Office murals in San Francisco (now preserved as the lobby to Rincon Tower) whose muralist, Anton Refrigier, was a Communist. In Poethig's "Freeway Prophecy" the hands appear almost like vertical turn signals.

At this point in the late 1990s, perhaps since so much of my political involvement, discussion and design work remains in the online realm, I can't help but look at and evaluate each successful mural as if it were a website. Like a website, "Freeway Prophecy" offers entrance at a specific point, with a guided viewing trajectory. Yet also like a website it can be totally invisible to someone living or working half a block away, a few steps comparable to the proximity of a few clicks. Like cyberspace, it contains elements diverse in scale, style and materials that somehow add up to a coherent whole, if only by the painterly background and the containing page of the building. On the desktop the computer monitor gives unity to the viewing, reading and sometimes listening experience. Everything fits into the window with a bit of scrolling and clicking; if it doesn't, it's been designed or engineered badly and probably won't hold the viewer's interest.

Unlike in the virtual world, traversing a city with the flow of traffic or counter to it demands, more than in the virtual world, a constant change of focus in the reading of environment, signage, intentions of the car next to you, weather, speedometer, and maps. So does this mural. Much like the two mural-filled blocks of San Francisco's Balmy and Clarion Alleys, the "Freeway Prophecy" mural creates its own environment, in the cul-de sac of Clementina at Eighth Street. SF Moto Scooter is located right across narrow Clementina from it, resulting in loudly sputtering scooters zipping into or out of their garage or even parked along the street, therefore implicitly part of "the future of transportation" as well as its present. Too big when hemmed in by neighboring buildings for a pedestrian to take in with a single glance, unlike high-concept photography-based billboards, such murals are paintings to be read or studied on the street, hand-wrought works where you can readily see the brushstrokes or fingermarks on ceramic elements. A relatively big mural in a short stub of a street like Clementina demands its own viewing window: the arc of a pedestrian's neck craning up to the top, from side to side, aided with the dolly shot afforded by strolling feet. The two-story composition demands that head-bobbing and neck-craning, and the resulting physical feeling, helps bring about in the viewer a child-like awe before the big wall and a kid's own attentiveness to the whimsical details.

So does "Freeway Prophecy" constitue a traffic hazard? Viewing speed is a dilemma of every community muralist, painting or assembling in a public space a visual manifestation of many contributors' energies, is the viewing speed. A mural alongside a freeway, like "Going to the Olympics" which Frank Romero painted for the bumper-to-bumper crowds swelling the 101 in Los Angeles for the 1984 Olympics, is often as simple as his row of cartoony cars that can be appreciated in a single glance. Murals in a hospital such as San Francisco's Laguna Honda (like my own there) can be more complex, as the population that lives among the mural is largely confined to wheelchairs and gurneys and have the time to unravel and meditate upon ornate imagery. "Freeway Prophecy" plays a different game and solves the problem in another way: by being on the south wall of a building on a southbound one-way street, it's only seen by most motorists in an enticing rearview mirror glance. Any car that intentionally turns down the one-block alley Clementina there is slowed and then has to turn around to exit. "Freeway Prophecy" purposely counters the flow of traffic through the neighborhood...essentially forcing drivers to park the car and walk back to experience it on foot.

May feet increasingly be the future of transportation! Day and night there is foot traffic on and around Eighth Street, for the South of Market neighborhood is an old industrial district that in the past three decades has become an entertainment zone as well. Architecture critic Molly Hankwitz has noted how the accumulated mass of concert, event and political flyers posted on walls and telephone poles directed at pedestrians constitute a major street-level architectural element in the hip parts of cities. Looking at "Freeway Prophecy" the weekend before its June 29th dedication, Gay Freedom Day crowds, some in drag, spilled onto the sidewalk from a bar on nearby Folsom Street, and added to the surreal festivity of the mural and its environment.

Downtown traffic is a major political issue in San Francisco. Mayor Willie Brown postures and takes criticism for the underfunded MUNI bus and streetcar system. One afternoon a month for the past six years Critical Mass has forcefully demonstrated the importance of bicycles as alternative transportation with their mass rides. Meanwhile a bicycle mural is in development in the city's Upper Market Street neighborhood. A mural located and designed as strategically as Johanna Poethig's "Freeway Prophecy" eddys and bottles up the neighborhood's traffic for a spell to say "Stop to see what the poet has to say, to see what the children have to show us." "Freeway Prophecy" gently subverts automobillious hegemony with poetic young teenagers' visions, gathered in an autonomous urban alley now liberated via art.

In 1998 artist Mike Mosher ( completed murals the "Transistor Healing Elvis" in Memphis, and "Mid-Market Carnival" on San Francisco labor, politics, and vaudeville in the lobby of 1095 Market Street.

Copyright © 1998 by Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.